BBC’s seven-way televised debate, which took place on 31 May in Cambridge, featured the ‘leaders’ of the seven main political parties up for election on 8 June: Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, UKIP’s Paul Nuttall, Green co-leader Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. The leader of the Conservatives, PM Theresa May was paradoxically conspicuous in her absence, having sent the Home Secretary Amber Rudd to speak out for the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to send SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson was not discussed, but May’s absence was criticised on a continual basis during and after the debate.
For those interested in a real political debate which make clear political stand points and opinions to fellow debaters and the audience, May’s absence was indeed problematic. While her reasons were obvious, not wishing to risk her leading position in a situation difficult to control, and while Amber Rudd seemed to efficiently express May’s views, even imitate May’s controlled tone of voice and composure, the absence of the leader of the political party currently in government could be understood as an unwillingness to engage with political debate and the electorate.
Jeremy Corbyn had been accused of the same in the weeks and days up to the debate because of his rejection of the invitation, but his last-minute decision to turn up meant that he appeared to take the electorate seriously. In light of Corbyn’s appearance, it is perhaps the last time that May can decide not to turn up – it would now harm her ‘and her team’ (to borrow her current catch phrase intended to make voters ‘forget’ that she is leading the Conservatives) more not to turn up than to risk being put on the spot by participating.
This matters, not so much in the small tit-for-tat about who is neglecting the electorate or being a coward, but rather in the bigger picture of finding a format in which politicians can effectively communicate with the electorate (or indeed any inhabitant of the UK, including those unable to vote such as the famous three million EU nationals). As it stands, the mainstream media are often being accused of being partisan – see Boris Johnson’s swipe at the BBC for inviting a ‘left-wing’ audience to the televised debate – or setting too many rules for politician and audience behaviour: who can speak, when can they speak, to whom can they speak, and – as in previous televised debates – can the audience even clap when they want? Instead of incessantly debating the rules of the debate, it might allow for greater plurality of opinion, and therefore exposure to more than ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ views, if there were simply many more TV debates in which not only leaders were invited but party spokespersons on, for example, security, public services or foreign policy just to name a few of the topics discussed in the BBC debate. That way, the electorate could hear better-informed discussions on topics they thought important for making up their minds up to a general election. It would not mean more work for the individual politician, but it would mean a closer engagement with the people who vote for them. It might even train the politicians to discuss without shouting over each other’s head, as we saw in the TV debate.
More TV debates or other formats of open discussion might also mean that politicians would eventually tire of repeating the same slogans and phrases over and over again. What was surprising about the BBC debate was, in fact, that the majority of the debate took place without a constant repetition of the stock phrases we have heard for the past weeks. Only 80 minutes into the programme, when the question about leadership came up, did the Amber Rudd revert to ‘Theresa May and her team’. It will be interesting to see if more of such debates – and more are coming up in the final stretch to the election – will force the politicians to speak with more variation in both content and choice of words.